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Turns Out No One's Buying All Those Communities on EBay

Eight Western towns have been on the block. Four months later, they remain unsold.

May 05, 2003|Emily Gurnon | Special to The Times

ARCATA, Calif. — The media jumped to high alert late last year when, one by one, a string of Northern California towns went up for sale on EBay, the online auction company.

Soon, eight towns in the West were on the block, and a new phenomenon seemed to be born. But four months later, the properties -- including Bridgeville, Carlotta and Platina, just miles apart on California 36 near here -- remain unsold.

Offerings other than the woodsy hamlets of the north were the desert outpost of Amboy in San Bernardino County, three Nevada ghost towns and the Old West village of Langtry, Texas.

Like a mobbed open house that empties without a buyer in sight, the EBay listings have fizzled.One real estate agent suggested that the war in Iraq may have distracted potential buyers. More likely, said another, people like to see, touch and smell the property they are going to buy, not click images on their computers.

Chris Larsen of Sunset Realty in Arcata said two weeks ago that a $1.78-million deal for Bridgeville would be sealed by Friday. That didn't happen. "I don't know," she said Friday. "It just takes time." Larsen has been telling reporters since February that the close of escrow was imminent.

Bridgeville, a tiny spot of land on two-lane California 36 in Humboldt County went on sale just before Christmas. The novel computerized marketing plan inspired newspaper articles across the country.

Contrary to reports at the time, Bridgeville -- which features 82 acres of scenic land, plus a number of sad-looking buildings and a cemetery -- was not the first town offered for sale on the Internet auction site. That distinction falls to the ghost town of Danville, Nev., which appeared on EBay five days earlier and attracted a number of potential buyers, but comparatively little media attention.

A man who answered the phone at the home of Bridgeville's owner, Elizabeth Lapple, told a reporter he wasn't talking.

"I was never in favor of listing this on EBay," said Trish Rippie, a real estate agent for the Danville property co-owned by her ex-husband, Michael. "I thought it was a big waste of time."

Silver miners, the only ones likely to be interested in the isolated property, will pay attention to Danville when the silver market rebounds, she said.

The Carlotta auction, which ended in March, attracted a corporate buyer from the Los Angeles area, but the company decided to buy property in Oregon instead, said real estate broker Sandra Spalding.

Carlotta, another faded burg on California 36, about 25 miles southeast of Eureka, once boasted the proud Carlotta Hotel, a destination for tourists until it burned to the ground in 1995.

The town's owner, Angelo Batini, said he was "very happy" it hadn't sold. "I'm not making that mistake anymore," said Batini, 70, adding that he believes Carlotta was underpriced at a little more than $1 million and will go for more if broken into pieces.

Besides, Batini said, he's happy. "My wife has horses; I have a nice workshop in back. We have chicken pens, pheasant pens. The river is right on our doorstep. I love it here."

The third California town to list itself on EBay also lies, in a strange coincidence, on California 36 -- 70 miles east along the winding road from Bridgeville.

Platina, a former mining town named for the platinum found there, features a store, a tavern, several residential rentals, a post office, a water system and 66 acres.

Yvonne Mills, who bought the land 19 years ago, listed her town on EBay for $600,000 after watching as the bidding for Bridgeville sent bids spiraling $1 million over the asking price.

That listing ended in February with Platina unsold.

"I still have some people trying to get some financing going," Mills said, but added that she was not optimistic.

The latest town to show up on EBay was the Mojave Desert town of Amboy, on Route 66 about 78 miles from Barstow. It was listed on the auction site for $1.9 million about seven weeks ago, but no bids topped $1 million, said Rob McManus, estate director for Dilbeck Realtors of San Marino.

"We went on just about the time of the war on Iraq, and I think it had a significant effect on the auction," McManus said. "People's hearts and minds were somewhere else."

Real estate auctions are commonplace, but trying to sell homes and land -- much less a whole town -- over the Internet is not a good bet, said Walter Molony, a spokesman with the National Assn. of Realtors.

"People want to see a property," Molony said. "They want to feel it. It's not the same thing as buying books."

Then again, the motors category on EBay started out very small too, said an EBay spokesman, Kevin Pursglove.

"I think we thought that selling cars on the Internet wouldn't be the most practical idea, simply because people like to kick the tires," Pursglove said. Now, EBay reports $3 billion in car sales a year.

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